INDEPENDENCE, Mo. – A little Saturday morning exercise proved more enticing than expected a couple weeks ago in Independence, when the city’s target of a couple hundred sign-ups turned into more than 1,000 registrants for the inaugural 5K Park Trot.
“We had people … who said they had no idea they could have this much fun walking,” Health Director Larry Jones said.
The Park Trot is among a slew of health initiatives around the area that officials expect to bolster through a Community Transformation Grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The initiatives are wide ranging, including everything from efforts to reduce second-hand smoke to encouraging pedestrian-friendly development.
Funding for the new program is coming through the Affordable Care Act.
The region could receive as much as $3.5 million through the five-year grant, so long as it meets performance standards and Congress continues to appropriate the funds, said Marlene Nagel, community development director for the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC).
Sixty-one communities around the country are splitting initial funding of $103 million in 2011-2012, including approximately $706,000 for a MARC-led partnership that includes the Independence, Kansas City, Mo., and Jackson County health departments.
Health officials said work through the grant is ramping up after six months of preliminary work.
To the three main focuses of the program – tobacco-free living, active living and healthy eating, and high-impact clinical and preventive services – local partners have added a fourth: healthy and safe physical environment.
A key initiative is increasing nutritional options in vending machines.
For instance, one goal is to have healthy vending contracts in place at five nonprofit organizations and/or local governments within Jackson County by the end of September 2013. Assuming full funding of the grant, the partners want to increase that figure to at least 200 settings by 2016, including within private workplaces.
The grant also will aid coordination of services and dissemination of best practices across the region, said Kansas City Health Director Dr. Rex Archer. Students are one of the target populations.
One example, he said, could be a community garden on a school property where children are taught about gardening. Lessons learned at one site, he said, then could be used “to catalyze change at the next location.”
Officials at the Kansas City Health Department said they hope to share with other school districts the progress it has made in the Hickman Mills School District through the city’s Active Living KC initiative, which included establishing safe walking and biking routes to school.
Within the next five years, the program partners want to establish “evidence-based nutrition standards and increased physical activity opportunities” in at least half of the 12 school districts in Jackson County.
Archer said the grant would allow the program partners to nurture ongoing initiatives.
“Differentiating what seed we planted two years ago, watered last year, and now we are starting to cultivate this year, it’s all pretty fluid from that standpoint,” he said. “Would they have flowered anyway or not, some of them probably would have, but a lot of them wouldn’t have.”
In Independence, the Park Trot is only one program that has bloomed.
The health department has also earmarked funds from the grant to help expand community gardens.
Officials cut the ribbon on the seventh location Tuesday and said they want to establish at least four more with assistance from the CDC grant.
Using average yield estimates from the University of Missouri Extension and vegetable prices in local grocery stores, the Independence Health Department estimated that their community gardens at low-income housing complexes shaved as much as $163 off a family’s food bill last year.
In addition, the Community Transformation Grant is paying for the next round of no-smoking signs that the health department is posting at parks and recreation spots around the city.
To establish baseline data for the grant, Public Health Program Coordinator Christina Heinen and other department staff have collected cigarette butts at various parks.
On one recent trip, a woman thanked the staff members for their work.
Before the signs went up, she told them, it was tough for her to ask other park goers to snuff out their cigarettes around her infant and toddler.
“Now she said she points to the sign,” Heinen said. “She said she loves it. It works well.”